Truth vs. Tropes in Video Games: Objectification or Power Fantasy?

Trever Bierschbach
4 min readApr 3, 2024

There are absolutely justifiable reasons to call for more variety in video games when it comes to body types, image, and gender representation. While the debate rages on about exactly how to go about that, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of current IPs and introducing new characters and stories, some people are shooting missiles at the wrong targets and derailing a valid debate with ignorant, and often selective, moral outrage. The most inexplicable argument is when games who clearly have a vast array of body imagery are targeted by critics who pick out one or two characters to hold up as problem examples.

A recent target of this selective outrage was when Soul Calibur: Lost Swords hired manga artist Yamatogawa to design an armor skin. The linked article was one of the few I could find that didn’t jump right into the outrage face first. Of course Yamatogawa is also a hentai artist, and for the uninitiated hentai is sexually explicit anime/manga. To many this makes him unqualified to do art for a video game. That’s right folks, artists who draw fictional characters in the nude, are no longer qualified to do art for video games, at least not according to several bloggers and ‘journalists’ out there. That’s not the only line that’s been crossed by Soul Calibur in this. You might be shocked by the ‘armor’ design shown. If you draw the line at realistic armor in your fantasy fighting games where fictional characters are dragged through time to fight each other in arenas that defy the laws of physics that is.

That’s not what we came here to talk about though, so let’s get to it. I use Soul Calibur as an example because the franchise has always been one of the games targeted by neo-puritans in their crusade to cherry pick their way to justifying a reason to complain. Despite the series starting out with female characters of different body types, and constantly adding more, critics usually pick out one, or two characters from the series to complain about. Looking at the image above, released by @Daishi_CALIBUR on twitter you can see that just about every type of female shape is covered, that one might expect among a group of athletic ladies. Does the outrage mean that it’s really not variety that critics want? More and more it seems critics are only interested in one type of image from the center, or more right of the scale above?

Of course, the word objectification is used, viewing the women in video games, not as people…people…but as objects. Whether you view a pixelated character as a sexual object or not, they are not people and gamers do know the difference between real people and animated characters. But, let’s set that aside a moment and examine the objectification angle. Saying that these images are targeted at male gamers to touch on their overwhelming desire for sexy women in games dismisses a whole range of other people. I know women who love games, and love to play sexy women in games. I know men who don’t like to play female characters in games, and I know men that would laugh at the idea of finding animated characters sexually appealing. To the first group, women who like these characters, you break that down again into women who like to play female characters who don’t look like them, whether it be to feel more confident, sexier, or just generally different. You also have women who are attracted to women, and who enjoy sexy women in their entertainment.

The flip-side to that argument is of course all the male characters in games, built and shirtless, buff examples of unattainable male ‘perfection’. The moment you bring that up you will probably hear the words ‘male power fantasy’ because it’s just fine to give guys images of something they might not be so they can play that character and pretend. It’s just not all right to give female gamers the same consideration. Right? They’ll also tell you that those images of the buff, muscled behemoths are not there to give something for the ladies to look at, women aren’t into that sort of thing in their entertainment…right? Google romance novel covers and tell me that these are marketed to guys so that they can pretend to be something they’re not.

The worst is when people describe characters like Ivy as ‘not realistic’. Now I’m not a girl, but I’ve known a couple of girls in my life that matured early and had a larger than average bust size when they were younger, and still do. What does it say to a young woman, who is already dealing with being different, if she sees a character like her and people say “That’s not realistic”? What does it say to the countless women out there that do look like Ivy, or Taki, or Bayonetta when we call them unrealistic examples? Body-shaming is body-shaming right?

I don’t know a single gamer that wants less variety in their games. More games, more gamers, more characters, more images, bring it! What most gamers are tired of is being told they shouldn’t like what they like and having some sort of pseudo-psychological claptrap used to shame them. Especially when all the existing examples of good progress are ignored. One begins to feel it will never be enough. Will games have to devolve into all characters being genderless, featureless polygons that barely resemble humans just so we aren’t afraid we might offend the one person in a million that has a problem with a game character that doesn’t look just like them?